Known commodities: Da’Jon McKnight (team highs of 750 yards and 10 touchdowns on 48 receptions) is a big, athletic target at wide receiver. Leading tackler Gary Tinsley is a talent at linebacker and seven other starters return on defense. Brandon Kirksey provides a formidable presence inside at defensive tackle.
Questions: Can new head coach Jerry Kill change the atmosphere in a program that was plagued by inconsistency and mistakes throughout the tenure of the fired Tim Brewster? Inconsistent four-year starting quarterback Adam Weber is gone, and his replacement, junior MarQueis Gray, has not play has not played quarterback full time since high school. Gray was the team’s No. 2 wide receiver last season. He is a dangerous runner but unknown as a passer. Three new starters are needed on the offensive line. Will a young running back step up to help (or supplant) veteran Duane Bennett?
Spring game recap: Freshman running back Donnell Kirkwood’s 3-yard run produced the only touchdown in an intrasquad scrimmage at TCF Bank Stadium. Kill opted to use the 15th and final day of spring practice as another practice day because his Golden Gophers need as much work as they can get while trying to put behind them the rubble of Brewster’s reign.
“It was certainly great to work with the kids over the past practices and get in our 15th and final practice today,” said Kill, formerly of Northern Illinois. “We’d like to turn around and have 15 more practices, but we can’t. I do think that there is progress being made. Infant steps. A lot of learning, a lot of kids in different situations, positions, etc. But I do think that the learning is taking place. We got a lot repetition and hopefully they’ll continue to get better.”
Issues addressed: Kill took to some unique tactics to get his message across during spring, including having players who break team rules wear t-shirts bearing the words, “Minnesota Lophers” in pink letters.
“The big thing is that we’re making sure kids are accountable not only on the field, but off the field,” Kill explained. “If it’s missing class or being late to class, things of that nature, we’re going to make sure we take care of it immediately. Same on the field, I believe you lose more than you win because of turning the ball over, jumping offsides, dumb things. We’re pretty tough on them when they make a mistake. So far this spring, I think the kids are starting to understand that.”
As for depth chart doings, the most important development of the spring was probably the maturation of Gray. The junior from Indianapolis becomes a full-time quarterback this year after starting at wide receiver last year and taking snaps in a few special situations in 2009.
The 6-4, 229-pounder has great athleticism and a strong arm, but he is understandably raw.
“He’s really surprised me for a kid who was hurt his high school senior year and hasn’t played quarterback,” said Kill. “He’s learned very well. He’s a quick learner. He doesn’t make the same mistake twice. He’s a tremendous athlete. There’s no question about that. I’m very pleased with his progress and pleasantly surprised.”
Gray said the transition was going well.
“It feels great,” Gray said. “I haven’t played quarterback for a whole year since my junior year (of high school). Unfortunately, I didn’t get to play when I got up here, but I got a chance to learn from (four-year starter) Adam Weber, who was a great guy and a leader on and off the field, a great guy in the film room. I’m looking forward to playing quarterback this year.”
Kill praised his long-time strength and conditioning coach Eric Klein for being one of the biggest reasons for the success that his previous teams have enjoyed. He said Klein did a good job of preparing the Gophers for spring ball.
Advanced statistical revelations*: There is at least one big quirk in every set of Football Outsiders data that’s applied to each team, and Minnesota is no different. The projections for last year found the Gophers played well enough to beat Wisconsin, a Big Ten co-champion who was still trying to find its stride at that time (prior to beating Ohio State).
Brewster’s last team had an average running game but his move toward a more power-oriented attack did have one intended outcome: There were some big plays to be had, especially on passing downs, when Weber could hook up with McKnight or Gray down the field. Tight end Eric Lair was also a weapon at times.
The defense was relatively efficient against the run but gave up too many big plays, and it was all-around dreadful against the pass. A nonexistent pass rush did not help matters in the least.
Pro prospects**: Lair is a good blocker at the first and second level and can be a threat in the passing game, especially vertically.
McKnight might not be an NFL guy (again, I think these evaluations come down a little on the harsh side), but he has a good size/speed combo for college.
Tinsley is a gamer who plays hard but is limited physically (He looks bigger than his measurables to me). Another good college guy regardless of pro prospects.
Cornerback Troy Stoudermire, who converted from wide receiver, has good speed and burst. He can close and cover. Though a bit raw, he is tough to separate from in coverage.
Issues remaining/other thoughts: This may surprise you, but there could be two lasting positives from the Brewster era that benefit this team. One, his efforts to move from a spread offense to a pro-style attack (though they probably expedited his trip out of Minneapolis) probably leave the squad relatively ready to embrace Kill’s run-oriented style. Two, the somewhat brief uptick in recruiting that Brewster was able to engineer might show out in a couple of spots and make the Gophers more competitive this fall. Or it might not.
Defensive end is a big question mark, but they have some tackles to build around.
On offense, it will be interesting to see if redshirt freshmen running backs Kirkwood and Lamonte Edwards can step up and add anything. Gray’s running ability is tantalizing, but he needs a complement.
*SBNation has spent the summer previewing teams across the country using Football Outsiders’ advanced stats. They’ve started a movement not unlike SABRmetrics in baseball, and while I don’t agree with all of the tenets they are establishing, I find them often informative and always interesting. This is just my takeaway from the lengthy preview for this squad.
**These are culled from evaluations published by Wes Bunting of The National Football Post. He goes in-depth on a handful of draft-eligible players on every team, and I have significantly boiled them down, so I recommend you read the whole thing.